About six decades ago, when The Dick Van Dyke Show‘s protagonist Rob Petrie assured his fellow television writer Buddy Sorrell he had no thoughts of vengenace for a practical joke, Sorrell pleaded for mercy, sort of. “C’mon, let’s be fair. If I know something’s coming, I’ll worry,” Sorrell urged, “but if I don’t know I’ll go nuts.”
At that, Petrie smirked mischievously and the third member of the fictitious writing team, Sally Rogers, rasped to Sorrell, “Congratulations, General Custer, you just sold some guns to the Indians.”
A now-former Los Angeles Angels clubhouse attendant, Brian (Bubba) Harkins, is accused of giving ammunition to the Indians—not to mention the Astros, the Athletics, the Mariners, the Rangers, and any other team playing against the Angels in their digs just outside Disneyland.
Harkins tended the visitors’ clubhouse at Angel Stadium since 1990, well before the place was made over completely from its Anaheim Stadium root. The Angels fired him last March, after baseball’s government informed the team that Harkins provided opposing pitchers with a little extra to put on their pitches.
Specifically, MLB let the Angels know they had abundant reason to believe Harkins, for whatever cause, mixed up a homemade stickum from melted-down pine tar and rosin, the better to give opposing pitchers (ahem) better grips (hee hee) on their pitches (wink-wink, nudge-nudge).
Harkins sued both the Angels and MLB in August charging defamation and pleading that he never made or distributed anything unlawful in all the years he worked for the Angels. Both have filed to get the Harkins suits tossed; the hearings on those will happen in January and February.
If Harkins is guilty as accused, it begs the question of why. Why on earth would one team’s visiting clubhouse master provide the visitors’ pitchers with that new old fashioned medicated goo? Angel Stadium is known as a pitcher’s park, and the climate therein isn’t exactly the type that would move a pitcher to get a little extra help keeping a grip.
It’s not as though the Angels’ pitching staff was pinning the opposition to the walls especially in the past five seasons. Their pitching problems in those years have been documented so well and detailed that the other guys have needed extracurricular equalisers on the mound about as desperately as Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson needed Acme jet sneakers to steal his record 1,406 bases.
It’s certainly not as though the Angels have been scoring vaults full of runs, either. Remember, this is the team with the best all-around player on the planet, a guy who can make things happen just kneeling in the on-deck circle, and they can’t get runners aboard ahead of him or provide more than an aging and fading Albert Pujols behind him to get him home, either.
A team whose pitching staff posts a 4.57 ERA and a 4.59 fielding-independent pitching rate over a particular five-year spread including this year is not exactly a group against whom you need salvation by salve. The other guys’ pitchers could have thrown what they throw without sticky fingers and just waited for their own hitters to prick, poke, pound, pulse, or pulverise these Angel staffs.
It’s a little beyond belief to think that Haskins may have decided one fine day that the other guys stood so little chance against an Angel staff that handed runs out like Halloween candy to trick or treaters. Set aside for one second what you do or don’t think about cheating and ask yourselves whether you’d have thought that, all things considered, the 2016-2020 Angels were the guys who needed whatever breaks their pitching staffs could get by hook, crook, or anything else they could get their meathooks on.
You might not think it any more kosher, but you might understand if the visiting clubhouse attendant for any team employing Gaylord Perry in the prime of his actual or alleged grease-balling career decided to mix up a little gunk for the visiting enemy, the better to give them an even chance against Perry, who might actually have thrown fewer actual naughty balls than he let on. (Surely you remember Perry’s little mound routine prior to delivery, the better to let the batter think he was preparing a lube job.)
Try to imagine teams’ road clubhouse people looking for and providing ways for the other guys to even things out against such real or suspected scuffers, scratchers, swampers, and ringers as Bo Belinsky, Lew Burdette, Whitey Ford, Art Fowler, Mudcat Grant, Ross (Skuzz) Grimsley, Kevin Gross, Tommy John, Eddie Lopat, Joe Niekro, Phil (The Vulture) Regan, Preacher Roe, Mike Scott, and Don Sutton.
And, try to imagine such teams catching their trusted visitors’ clubhouse hosts handing the travelers anything, never mind Harkins’ blended Creme de Mess, to counter the like of Burdette’s suspected swamp balls. (The fidgety righthander was believed to spit his tobacco juice to the same spot by the rubber for a scoop o’sewage when he bent over.) Or, Ford’s mud or ring balls. Or, Regan’s sweat ball. (The Vulture got away with it for as long as he did because nobody suspected he was just letting his natural heavy sweat run down his arm.) Or, Grant’s soap balls. (The Mudcat once liked to soap the inside of his jersey and got nailed only when he overdid it inside his gray road uniform—and the warmth of the sun turned the Ivory so pure it foamed visibly through the material.)
Not to mention being unable to wait as long as Belinsky once swore he did for the chance of a Ford mud, ring, or buckle ball awaiting him on the mound before confiscation when it was side retired. “If Whitey left one for me on the mound,” the playboy-flake lefthander once said, “I had two outs waiting for me right there. If he didn’t, I was dead.” Did the usually clever Ford ever think he might be loading the enemy cannons himself?
John actually did little other than wait for a ball in play to be thrown back to him. If the ball wasn’t removed, he’d spot the merest scuff from the play action and turn it into a double play ground ball. When Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan showed Thomas Boswell a ball he cut with three straight gashes and said, “Any time I need four new pitches I got them,” Flanagan also said of that ball, “My God, Tommy John could make this ball sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’.”
It’s rare enough now to find pitchers suspected of putting more on the ball than just their fingers. Teams taking traitorous pity on the other guys against such scofflaws among their own troops have their work cut out for them, if their own scofflaws are as slick as the Burdettes, Fords, Johns, and Regans.
My best guess is that trying to prove game by game which Indians (or Astros, Athletics, Mariners, Rangers, or others) ambushed the Angels with goop balls provided from the inside might be a fool’s time-guzzling errand. We’re pretty sure the Angels a) weren’t going rogue; or, b) if they were, they set undetected records for the driest spitters in baseball history.
Maybe the other guys approached Harkins and offered him a little extra emolument that he accepted gratefully enough to duck into the lab and blend his brews. If it can be proven that they did and he did, at least that would make perverse sense. If it can be proven that they didn’t and he didn’t, Harkins might consider himself fortunate that fired was the worst he got.